Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Championship Preview, Part 1: When Oklahoma Has The Ball

When Oklahoma's offense faces Florida's defense, both teams will be facing units of a quality they haven't seen this season. No one on UF's schedule features the kind of high-octane, fast-paced, record-setting offense of which Oklahoma can brag. But it works both ways: the Sooners haven't seen a defense with the speed, ferocity and overall talent of the Gators. TCU ranks higher, but it's probably fair to discount those statistics a little based on quality of competition.

This match-up takes on great importance, even beyond the obvious reasons. I think Florida's offense has a decided advantage over Oklahoma's defense (for reasons I'll explain in a later post), so Oklahoma needs to rack up the points. The Sooners won't be able to win this game without a top-flight performance from their offensive unit.

There's plenty of reason to believe they'll get it. What's frightening about Oklahoma aren't so much the statistics, though they are impressive: 562 yards per game, 54 points per game, 60+ points in each of the last 194 games, 356 passing yards per game, 205 rushing yards per game.

OK, so the stats are a little frightening.

But even beyond those numbers, Oklahoma's scary because of the sheer number of playmakers the Sooners will throw at the Gators. Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford is only the tip of the spear. He'll be handing off to Chris Brown, who's carried for more than 1,100 yards and 20 TDs. He'll be throwing to a quartet of prolific receivers: any one of Juaquin Iglesias, Jermaine Gresham, Manny Johnson or Ryan Broyles could start for Florida. And beyond those four there's Quentin Chaney, who's caught 27 passes for 467 yards.

To be sure, the Gators are in this position because their defense has taken a massive step forward from where they were during the 2008 Capital One Bowl. UF is ninth in the country in total defense, 15th in rushing defense, 19th in passing defense. Florida has talent liberally sprinkled throughout the field.

But for all those numbers, there are still some weak points. Joe Haden has improved significantly in his second year with UF and as a cornerback, but some teams have exploited him. LSU's Brandon LaFell abused Haden throughout the game, as did true freshman Julio Jones for Alabama.

Florida weathered Haden's struggles in those games because LSU didn't have the quarterback to take advantage of the situation and because Alabama didn't have a receiving weapon besides Jones. Neither of those things are true for Oklahoma. Bradford will read the holes in Florida's defense, and he has half a dozen targets to choose from. The Gators can't cheat to help Haden. He'll need to play top-flight football, because he'll be playing it without a net.

Gresham, Oklahoma's outstanding tight end, presents a particular match-up problem for the Gators. UF does have the advantage of two corners with above-average physical strength; Haden and Janoris Jenkins are big hitters. But Gresham's 6-6 and 261 pounds; neither Haden nor Jenkins are six feet tall. And throwing a linebacker on him is problematic as well. Brandon Spikes doesn't really have the speed or overall athleticism to cover Gresham, and besides, you don't want Spikes running down the field in pass coverage. You want him in the box, blowing up Brown or whoever else Oklahoma uses to run the football. Dustin Doe is fast enough for the job, but he's not big enough to physically handle Gresham.

UF's best option might be true freshman Will Hill, which is kind of scary. He's more than fast enough to cover Gresham, and his size (6'2, more than 210 pounds) means Gresham won't be able to physically intimidate him. That's not a great option, but it's the best I can come up with right now.

But the Gators' biggest problem is along the defensive line. Oklahoma's offensive line is massive. The Sooners have allowed just 11 sacks all season, the 3rd-best figure in the country. Florida, meanwhile, is just 32nd in the country in sacks; they've picked up 32 all season long. That's not a bad figure, but it's not a good one either, and when combined with Oklahoma's skill in pass protection, it's hard to see UF knocking Bradford down with much frequency.

A pass rush is the great equalizer: a bad QB, throwing to bad receivers, is still going to have success if he can stand untouched in the pocket and wait for someone to come open. Conversely, a great QB, throwing to great receivers, is rendered impotent if he has to run for his life on every play. The worst thing a defense can do is give a great quarterback all the time in the world to throw to great receivers.

Florida knows that better than most. The Gators turned 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith into a shattered shell of himself because Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey eviscerated Ohio State's offensive line. If they can't put at least a little pressure on Bradford, the Gators are going to have to score more than 50 points to win.

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